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British fox hunters mount challenge to ban

Hunters in Britain went to court Friday to challenge a legislative ban on fox hunting and vowed a campaign of protest against the government to win back their right to practice the traditional sport.
Hounds watch and wait for the start of their fox hunt by their master at the Sinnington Hunt Meet near Malton in North Yorkshire, on Wednesday.
Hounds watch and wait for the start of their fox hunt by their master at the Sinnington Hunt Meet near Malton in North Yorkshire, on Wednesday.John Giles / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Defeated in Parliament, supporters of fox hunting went to court Friday to try to overturn a legislative ban on their more than 300-year-old sport and vowed a campaign of civil disobedience in the run-up to next year’s general election.

The court case by the Countryside Alliance challenged the validity of the law that enabled the House of Commons to ban hunting of foxes, hares and stags with hounds despite the opposition of the House of Lords.

The House of Commons enacted the ban in England and Wales, effective Feb. 18, by invoking the Parliament Act for only the fourth time since 1949. The Countryside Alliance contends the Parliament Act was not properly applied. Scotland outlawed hunting with dogs two years ago.

‘Political vandalism’
“What we saw in Parliament yesterday was nothing more than political vandalism,” said Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.

If that challenge fails, the Alliance planned a second case arguing the law violated human rights, said spokesman Tim Bonner.

“Beyond that, our people will certainly be engaging in the general election campaign,” Bonner said, adding: “Many thousands of people are committed to peacefully disobeying any law against hunting when it is brought.”

The civil disobedience campaign reportedly would include protests in London, and landowners preventing the use of their land for military training facilities, electricity pylons and sewage treatment.

About 2,000 whistling, banner-waving hunting supporters gathered Thursday night outside Windsor Castle, where Queen Elizabeth II was hosting a banquet in honor of French President Jacques Chirac. Prime Minister Tony Blair also attended.

“There are a lot of angry people here, people of all ages and from all backgrounds, who are fed up with being ignored,” said Ian Agnew, chairman of the Surrey Union Hunt.

While it will still be legal to shoot foxes, the legislation bans all hunting with hounds, including the pursuit of hares and stags.

Rarely used law dusted off
Before Thursday, the 1949 Parliament Act had been used only three times: to lower the age of consent for homosexual sex, to allow British courts to try Nazis suspected of war crimes and to change the electoral system for selecting representatives to the European Parliament.

The hunting issue sparked an enormous protest in September 2002, when 400,000 hunting supporters marched through central London in what was billed as one of Britain’s largest protests in 150 years.

The Conservative Party says it will repeal the law if it wins the next general election, expected in May, but political analysts say a Conservative victory appears unlikely.

Opponents of hunting say it is unacceptably cruel since the dogs kill foxes by tearing them apart. They also deride it as a mainly aristocratic pastime. Prince Charles and other royals are among the most prominent participants.

Opponents: Upper-class cruelty
Oscar Wilde, mocking the parties of red-jacketed gentlemen who thunder through fields on horseback, once labeled the sport “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.”

Supporters argue hunting with hounds is humane because the prey die quickly. They say it attracts fans from all backgrounds, not just the upper classes, and is central to rural Britain’s culture and economy.

They fear a ban would put up to 8,000 people out of work, including employees of about 200 hunts, the keepers of 184 registered foxhound packs, saddlers, blacksmiths, grooms and stablehands.